Together we can survive
Best friends share their breast cancer journey
Best friends Jean Archer and Vernecia LaTouche (left).

IF you happen to find yourself in the same room as 55-year-old Jean Archer and 60-year-old Vernecia "Flo" LaTouche you would probably think they have been lifelong friends, so organic and beautiful is the bond between the two women — both hailing from Spanish Town, St Catherine — who met when they were admitted in hospital to have their mastectomies done almost ten years ago.

Archer and LaTouche shared the story of their timely and enduring friendship as part of Sagicor Group Jamaica's Together We Can Survive breast cancer awareness campaign, which aims to illuminate the journeys of breast cancer survivors, support warriors, honour the fallen, and encourage women to get screened early for breast cancer.

Both women shared how they became aware that they had breast cancer. For Archer, it was a matter of mere weeks between lump detection and diagnosis.

"I was having a shower one morning and I suddenly felt a lump in my left breast. When I put the rag over it, it was very hot. I was alarmed because I had never felt any lump there before, and cancer didn't run in my family, so I went to my nearest clinic and they gave me a referral to go to the hospital," Archer recalled. "I was about 46 at the time."

For LaTouche, diagnosis was a longer road. After her right breast suddenly became itchy and shiny in 2013, she visited her doctor, who referred her to have a mammogram and ultrasound done.

"When I returned, he gave me a letter to take to the hospital. They sent me for a biopsy, but it wasn't showing any cancer there," she shared. "They ended up taking some cells from my other breast to test, and we continued testing for several months. It wasn't until 2014 that a test result came back that showed I had cancer in the right breast."

Having both decided to remove the entire affected breast (mastectomy), the women's individual paths led them to Spanish Town Hospital on the same day in 2014 to prepare for their procedures.

"We were there from around 6:00 that morning," Archer said. "And we spoke throughout the day as we waited to be admitted. I was on ward four, bed four, and she was on ward three, bed three. I went to check on her that night to ask if she was alright, and the friendship just developed from there."

After spending a week in the hospital together, the women found themselves having the same appointment dates for chemotherapy and radiation afterwards. The companionship was a godsend, as LaTouche had asked her relatives not to accompany her to her appointments because she did not want them to be sad for her. And while Archer's mother tried to be present for her appointments, sometimes the rooms were so full that only patients could be allowed inside.

When they realised that they live a stone's throw from each other, Flo and Jean's friendship grew from the hospitals and into the women's homes. They supported and comforted each other as they faced the harshest parts of their recovery. They shared that they lost their appetite, weight, hair and strength, but they never lost touch with each other or their faith that they would emerge survivors.

"I was in treatment for longer than Jean," LaTouche shared. "But we remained friends. I am very thankful that I had a friend like her while I went through treatment, because support is so important. We became sisters. Then we learned of the Jamaica Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery programme, and we also became a part of that group."

After overcoming some of the most difficult periods of their lives together, the friends are now rejoicing in the fact that they survived together. Although they can now look back at their experiences and smile, both women expressed that they would not wish cancer on their worst enemy.

"Early detection is key," Archer said. "We caught ours pretty early on so we were able to fight it and beat it. We always encourage others to get checked. Don't be afraid; breast cancer is not a death sentence. Just be aware. Check yourself."

LaTouche added: "And encourage the warriors. If you know someone who has breast cancer, don't pity them; encourage them. Speak life into them and tell them that they will survive. They will live. See, we're now survivors of eight years, and if you look at us you would never know that we had breast cancer. We survived!"

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